When shopping for a helmet, gloves, jacket, boots, or pants meant for motorcycle riding, you’ll have noticed the product info refers to all sorts of safety standards. For helmets you may have DOT or SNELL, for example. On clothing you may often a “CE Approved” or similar mark. These look very fancy, but what do they actually mean? How are they related to the actual protection you’ll get when you part with your hard earned cash for this equipment?
In this article I’m going to try and demystify these standards so that you know exactly what it is you are buying and don’t end up overspending and under-protecting yourself.
Helmet Safety Standards
In general there are three helmet safety standards you are likely to encounter – DOT, SNELL and ECE 22.05.
DOT (Department of Transport) is probably the most common one in the USA and you’ll see many cheaper helmets carry nothing but this label. Be warned however, that some of the older DOT markings are easily counterfeited, and some novelty helmets that don’t actually comply with the standard carry the marking illegally.
One major issue with DOT is that it isn’t subject to third-party testing. Each manufacturer must test and certify their own helmets. This isn’t a problem if the testing is done by a reputable helmet manufacturer (e.g. Bell or Arai), but if it’s an unknown company of foreign origin, you may want to exercise some healthy skepticism of a DOT sticker.
The governing body does, however, randomly purchase samples of a manufacturer’s helmets and test them against DOT standards. If they are found to be in violation, the manufacturer can face penalties of as much as $5000 per helmet. So DOT is still pretty effective at keeping manufacturers honest – at least those within reach of the U.S. government.
The actual standard that DOT refers to is called FMVSS 218 and it involves standards of impact, field of view, energy absorption, and penetration. The actual requirements of the standard of DOT is actually quite good, so you can feel safe in a helmet that genuinely complies.
ECE standards are of European origin and overlap quite a bit with DOT, obviously. ECE standards include integrated visor standards, which DOT doesn’t. In the U.S. there are separate VESC 8 specifications for integrated visors. ECE doesn’t call for penetration testing, but it does ask for things DOT doesn’t, such as a helmet surface that doesn’t catch onto the test surface, for reducing twisting forces on the neck of the rider. In other words, a helmet that is both DOT and ECE compliant is better than either in isolation. ECE standards are not voluntarily self-tested. Manufacturers must submit samples for testing, so in this way it is a bit better than DOT.
SNELL certification, unlike DOT or ECE, is entirely voluntary. It is, however, much more stringent and it’s unlikely that anyone could get away with faking it. More expensive helmets tend to have SNELL certification as a show of quality. SNELL goes beyond minimum government standards, so it is well worth considering.